HELBRONNER, JULES (baptized Samson-Jules), journalist, labour activist, office holder, and social reformer; b. 23 Dec. 1844 in Paris, son of Joseph Helbronner, a florist, and Caroline Alcan; m. sometime before 1875 Eugénie Meusnier in France, and they had a son and a daughter; d. 25 Nov. 1921 in Ottawa and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.
Not much is known about Jules Helbronner’s life before he came to Canada with his wife in 1874. They settled in Montreal and would have two children, Michel and Antoinette, born respectively in 1876 and 1880. Helbronner worked as a clerk and sales representative before setting up his own enterprise, Jules Helbronner and Company, which distributed Quina-Laroche quinine, mainly in Canada.
Helbronner went to work for the Montreal weekly Le Moniteur du commerce as assistant editor in 1882, and he became its editor-in-chief in 1884. He did not get on well with the owner and resigned shortly afterwards. On 20 Oct. 1884 he wrote his first labour column for La Presse under the pseudonym Jean-Baptiste Gagnepetit, and it would appear at very irregular intervals until 1894. Although nearly 350 of these articles were published, they dealt with a relatively limited number of topics. Following a strategy widely used in the Anglo-American press at that time, Helbronner regularly engaged in newspaper campaigns. For several weeks he would concentrate on one theme, such as early closing hours for shops, preventive vaccination, or the reform of the water tax, and he would even return to it at more or less frequent intervals. In his columns he supported the whole range of demands put forward by the North American labour movement, while maintaining his critical attitude towards workers’ organizations. His vision of society was marked by organicism, a conviction widely held by social thinkers of his day. In his view, trade unionism provided workers with the essential means to defend their interests, but political action was also a route worth pursuing. This was why he supported labour candidates on a number of occasions, though he expressed reservations with regard to a genuine labour party. It seemed to him that workers’ interests were better served in the short term by the existing political parties.
Helbronner was also active within the trade union movement. He joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and helped draw up the program supported by three labour candidates in the Montreal region in the 1886 provincial election. He was an executive member of the Central Trades and Labor Council of Montreal and he would be made a life member of this body in 1889. From 1887 to 1889 he served on the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital [see James Sherrard Armstrong*], participating actively. He went on almost all its travels and wrote 5 of the 14 appendices of its minority report, those covering economy and the working class, unjust laws, strikes and arbitration, the payment and non-payment of wages, and the “sweating process.” He set the tone for the minority report, which was disparagingly described by some as “capitalistic.” It would have been more accurate to label it “philanthropic,” since its authors, taking their inspiration from a consensual vision of society, proposed measures likely to integrate workers harmoniously into the economic system. As a delegate from the Canadian government to the universal exposition in Paris in 1889, Helbronner studied the condition of the working class in the various countries represented in the section on social economy.
After an absence of several years from day-to-day journalism because of his official duties, Helbronner signed an employment contract with La Presse in 1890 stipulating that he would deal with “civic” and labour issues. Having made a name for himself there as a columnist, he became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, a post he would hold almost continuously from 1892 to 1908. Although he produced most of his writings on labour issues over a period of some ten years, he maintained his interest in municipal affairs throughout his journalistic career. In one of his earliest press campaigns he had denounced the corvée, a regressive fiscal measure imposed on Montreal tenants which was abolished in 1886, thanks in part to his efforts. In 1904 a disagreement with the administrator of La Presse, Herménégilde Godin, forced him to leave the newspaper temporarily. This situation recurred in 1908 when, despite opposition from the paper’s management, Helbronner strongly advocated the establishment of the royal commission to make a general and complete inquiry into the administration of the affairs of the city of Montreal [see Lawrence John Cannon], which began its work in April of the following year. In 1909 he joined La Patrie, where he was municipal affairs correspondent for several years. In 1916 he moved to Ottawa, probably to be closer to his daughter, who had been married since 1904 to Louvigny de Montigny*, a journalist, a writer, and since 1910 a translator for the Senate. Helbronner worked until 1920 as a clerk in the Department of Public Printing and Stationery in Ottawa, and he died in that city on 25 Nov. 1921. During his career as a journalist, he had written for many other Montreal periodicals, including Le Journal du dimanche, Le Nationaliste, La Revue moderne, and Le Soir.
Helbronner fiercely defended his Jewish heritage, as witness the many libel suits he brought against journalists of every socio-political stripe. He kept his own religious convictions to himself and clearly did not try to impose them on his children, since both of them were baptized and married – to French Canadian spouses – in the Roman Catholic faith. He personally identified with the French in Montreal, rather than with the Jewish community. He participated in the activities of the Chambre de Commerce Française in Montreal from 1887 to 1905 and was chairman of the Union Nationale Française from 1901 to 1909. Under his leadership, this charitable organization made outstanding progress. His achievements earned him the title of knight of the Legion of Honour in 1906.
Even after leaving Le Moniteur du commerce, Helbronner had continued to take an interest in the world of business. In 1887 he was one of the founders of the Montreal newspaper Le Prix courant, which specialized in business, finance, industry, real estate, and insurance. He left the newspaper at the beginning of the 1890s. His name also appeared on the membership list of the Chambre de Commerce du District de Montréal from 1886 to 1895, and he was a member of the committee in charge of its Bulletin from 1906 to 1908.
The question of workers’ savings and provision for mutual benefits was one of Helbronner’s favourite subjects. He devoted a number of columns to it and dealt with it in an appendix to the report presented in 1889 by the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital, as well as in his Report on the social economy section of the Universal International Exposition of 1889 at Paris, which was published in Ottawa in 1890. He also served on the boards of directors of several mutual benefit societies. In 1901, in a series of articles in Les Débats (a militant Montreal weekly founded in 1899 by Louvigny de Montigny and Paul de Martigny that from October 1900 bore the Liberal label), he exposed the shortage of reserves in the life annuity department of the Union Franco-Canadienne, an insurance company. This campaign, which he waged under the pseudonym of Julien Véronneau, gave rise to some widely publicized lawsuits between him and Louis-Gaspard Robillard, the company’s president and the editor of Le Pionnier, which was then being published in Montreal. The affair came to an abrupt end when Robillard fled to the United States.
The importance of Jules Helbronner’s service to the working class was widely recognized. A number of his contemporaries even credited him with the success of La Presse. While doubtless exaggerated, this claim was not groundless. Although the daily’s commercial success from the mid 1890s was evidently the result of decisions taken by its owner, Trefflé Berthiaume*, the fact remains that during the 1880s Helbronner’s column had greatly assisted in establishing the credibility of La Presse among working people. This was, however, a succès d’estime that had not increased the paper’s circulation to any appreciable extent.
[There is no known archival fonds solely for Jules Helbronner. Correspondence concerning him can be found in a few collections, in particular that of Trefflé Berthiaume (P207) at ANQ-M. Many indications of his disputes, notably with his employers, other journalists, a tenant, and the city of Montreal, can be found in the judicial archives of the District of Montreal, which are held at ANQ-M, T. The Fonds de la Légion d’Honneur at the Arch. Nationales (Paris), L1278060, contains a thin file on him. The Arch. Départementales, Seine (Paris), État civil, Paris, holds a copy of his birth certificate. The biographical dictionaries on Canadian Jews make no mention of Helbronner. Doubtless this lacuna is a sign that he defined himself as first and foremost a Frenchman and had tenuous links with the Jewish community in Montreal. He seems to have been brought back into the collective memory of Quebec Jews through the work of David Rome, who assembled a large file of documents that is held at the Canadian Jewish Congress National Arch. (Montreal), and who devoted a monograph to him – On Jules Helbronner, David Rome, comp., intro. Saul Hayes (Montreal, 1978).
Helbronner’s significant contribution to newspapers spanned nearly 40 years; since much of it consists of columns and editorials, it can quite easily be identified. He engaged in numerous polemics that give indications of his personality and his journalistic endeavours. Fernande Roy takes up his career as a business correspondent in Progrès, harmonie, liberté: le libéralisme des milieux d’affaires francophones de Montréal au tournant du siècle (Montréal, 1988), as does Yves Saint-Germain in “The genesis of the French-language business press and journalists in Quebec, 1871–1914” (phd thesis, Univ. of Delaware, Newark, 1975). On his labour column, the author’s monograph Jean-Baptiste Gagnepetit: les travailleurs montréalais à la fin du XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1975) and Mélanie Méthot, “Jules Helbronner (1844–1921): père de la conscience ouvrière montréalaise et intellectuel engagé,” Mens (Montréal), 2 (2001–2): 67–104, may be consulted.
As a member of the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Helbronner co-signed the minority report, in particular with Guillaume Boivin*, as well as several of its appendices: Can., Royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in Canada, Report (5v. in 6, Ottawa, 1889), first report, apps.C, H, I, L, O. Subsequently, as Canada’s delegate to the universal exposition in Paris, he penned the voluminous Report on the social economy section of the Universal International Exposition of 1889 at Paris (Ottawa, 1890). Analysis of his contribution to the work of the royal commission can be found in Canada investigates industrialism: the royal commission on the relations of labor and capital, 1889 (abridged), ed. G. [S.] Kealey (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973), and in Fernand Harvey, Révolution industrielle et travailleurs; une enquête sur les rapports entre le capital et le travail au Québec à la fin du 19e siècle (Montréal, 1978). Marcel Pleau, in Histoire de l’Union française, 1886–1945 (Montréal, 1985), gives an account of Helbronner’s involvement in supporting French nationals in Montreal. j.de b.] Le Devoir, 26 nov. 1921. Le Droit (Ottawa), 26 nov. 1921. La Patrie, 26 nov. 1921. La Presse, 26 nov. 1921. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898).